Maybe it's just me but I had the Harry Chaplin song "Cat's in the Cradle" in my head EVERY single time I picked up this book. While the title is fitting to the book, it also evoked a catchy song that drove me insane when it wouldn't leave my head. Despite the whole "little boy blue and the man on the moon" mental repetition, The Cat in the Cradle is an utterly delightful, whimsical fantasy filled with a creative imaginative plot, great characters, solid writing, and eye catching art work. While not perfect, the first foray into the publishing world for author Jay Bell is a great step and one not to be missed.
The story immediately introduces us to the main narrator Dylan, the son of the Blue Oligarch. The Oligarchs are a group of ten magic wielding men and women who rule their lands with powers denoted by the color of their magic. Dylan's father controls most things water as denoted by the Blue loka - or gem that concentrates and focuses magical power - yet poor Dylan can barely conjure enough liquid to drink. His weak blue magic skills are offset by a spoiled and indulgent childhood with a father that loves him deeply and compensates for a missing mother. Dylan longs for adventure and settles upon a crackpot scheme to run away to a friend's house with only his long time companion Kio, a talking cat. Together the two embark on a journey with no plans, no food, no map, and only the vague hope of the other boy. Unwittingly the two step into the middle of a complicated and sinister battle for power among the Oligarchs. Dylan may only be 17 but he throws himself into the mix with all the hubris and excitement being young and on your own can bring.
The plot itself is strongly action driven but well written and compelling. The story follows Dylan on his adventure that soon turns into a complex plot for power among the head magic users. The twists and turns feel natural and organic, without any forcing or obvious manipulations. There are some mistakes and stupid actions by the characters but they are young, insecure, scared, confident, and fully realized characters so the mistakes and missteps they make are understandable and work well within the story's context. The plot uses a mixture of action and character development so the pace is not always even. There is somewhat of a hurry up and wait aspect as there tends to be spurts of exciting, almost frantic action and then longer periods of introspection during traveling times. This doesn't hurt any reading enjoyment and in fact keeps things lively and interesting, but it won't always work for those readers that prefer an even pace and tone throughout.
Part of this unevenness is due to the complicated and truly intriguing world building. The fantasy world crafted is intricate, complex, and fascinating. The author does a really great job in incorporating the new world with all its wonders without overwhelming the story and allowing the fantasy aspect to be the main focus. Here the characters and solid plot are equally, if not more, important than the world building. The light touch with interesting details allows readers who may not be huge fantasy fans to be drawn into the story while those who enjoy fantasy stories will revel in the creative imagery. But the combination of action, world building, and character development makes for some slower movements offset by quick action. I was totally absorbed in the story and couldn't wait to find out what happens next so I wasn't bothered by the up and down nature but some might be.
The characters themselves are very charming and endearing. Dylan is the main third person narrator and his youthful inexperience sets the tone for the eventual rag tag group of characters. The majority of them are also young, such as Leli and Tyjin, so the characters tend to make a lot of mistakes. This helps show young adults, even fantasy magic users, as likable and even relatable. These characters go through the same problems as any others with worrying about popularity, their future, sexual identity, not living up to family pressures, and so on. The incorporation of these timeless themes makes the characters instantly understandable and sympathetic. Dylan especially shines as an insecure, confused young man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and his place since he lacks the real magical power to take over from his father. His sexual acceptance is important and perhaps even more so because he faces the same fears and concerns as many young adults coming out.
The writing and dialogue often is humorous and quirky. The talking cat Kio is a total delight with his observations and steadfast loyalty to Dylan. In fact he almost outshines many of the other characters and together with Tyjin, forms a compelling trio to watch. One that I can only hope will have future adventures and stories even as this offering stands on its own with no hanging threads. However the wealth of potential and creativity in the story, characters, and the world itself begs for a sequel. Or perhaps that's just me begging.
One final note of mention is the illustrations. The story comes in both illustrated and non versions and I highly recommend getting the illustrated version. Each chapter offers a drawing fitting to the chapter and the artwork is skillful and interesting. It doesn't have an incredibly polished feel but more so, they feel like sketches and glimpses. I found myself looking forward to each new chapter to see what the artist would come up with and how it would fit with the imagery the writing creates. For example, living in a flying windmill created by magic. I loved it.
The Cat in the Cradle is an incredibly fun and delightful read. The characters and fantasy world come alive with an energy easily translated across the page. The solid plot helps smooth over any questionable aspects even as the numerous twists and turns sometimes overshadow the book; yet the well crafted characters and their journey will draw you into their world. For those fans that like young adult fantasy books, this definitely delivers well. For those readers that are looking for something interesting, creative, and different - this is a great choice. The light touch and entertaining dialogue will keep you interested even if fantasy isn't your first choice.